Should you take the job at the big firm or work for the small business where you know the CEO personally? Should you move into the city or stay out in the countryside? Should you fire the employee whose performance has been slipping, or give him one more chance?
You'll face big, tough decisions throughout your entire life, and while in some ways they do get easier, they never become a simple matter. Hashing out the options and settling on one is a long, stressful experience, and even then, you're rarely sure that the decision you made was the right one.
Unfortunately, there's no one trick that can take a big decision and digest it into something that's easy; you'll always have some degree of difficulty when making big decisions. However, if you work to understand why these big decisions are difficult, you can develop a series of strategies that can lead you to an easier, less stressful decision making process.
Why Not All Big Decisions Are Hard
First, you'll need to understand that not all "big" decisions are hard decisions. There's a misconception that the hardest decisions we make in life are hard because of their scope--for example, choosing where to move is a big, monumental decision that will affect the quality of your life for years to come. It seems only natural that a decision with greater consequences would be harder to make.
This isn't the case; not all big decisions are difficult. For example, would you rather move to a city with a low crime rate, a warm climate, high average salaries, and a low cost of living, or a city with a high crime rate, frigid climate, low average salaries and high cost of living (with all other things being equal)? The decision here is apparent. Decisions become hard when their qualities are not comparable in a one-to-one fashion, regardless of their scale. Because many big decisions have more incomparable factors involved, there is an illusion that big decisions are naturally harder.
The Error of Comparison
As philosopher Ruth Chang explains in a recent TEDTalk, we do ourselves a disservice when trying to compare to incomparable options. For example, if you're comparing two potential job prospects, it's easy to compare one salary against another. It's much harder to compare less measurable factors, like one job's slightly closer commute and one job's more casual work environment. Those factors cannot be reduced to a number, and cannot be objectively compared against one another. As such, there is no clear decision.
The mistake many of us make in struggling over a big decision is attempting to make a direct comparison where a comparison cannot be made. We assume that one option must be objectively better than the other, and spend our time searching for factors responsible for that objective superiority, even though those factors don't exist.
Key Strategies for Making Decisions Easier
To correct this common fundamental problem in big decision making, there are a number of strategies you can incorporate into your process.
Stop trying to reduce everything to a number
The first step is to cut out the bad habit all of us have fallen into at one time or another. When comparing two or more abstract, complex options, resist the temptation to compare them objectively against one another. Do not try to monetize or quantify their unquantifiable factors; this will only succeed in confusing you. Instead, try thinking more generally about each option and recognize that one is not objectively better than the other.
Reduce the factors you consider for the decision
It's good to do research. It's good to dig deep and know what you're really getting yourself into. But there's a point where too much information only complicates your decision making. Try reducing the amount of information and the number of factors you use to make your decision. Instead, focus more on the "big picture" qualities of each option.
Think about who you want to be
Instead of thinking what you want to do, think about who you want to be. Picture how your identity will change as the result of your decision. Are you the type of person who works for a casual, laid-back company, or the type of person who makes more money and wears a suit every day? In a way, our decisions construct our identities, so use this strategy to help you figure out who you want to be.
Listen to others, but don't depend on them
Talk to your friends. Talk to your family. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to strangers if you have to. During the course of your conversations, you'll find yourself explaining things in a way that reveal which option you'd actually prefer. Your contacts might also help illuminate new details or perspectives you hadn't considered before. Just avoid this one critical mistake; never make your decision based solely on others' advice. Make the decision that's right for you, and for you alone.
Go with your gut
If all else fails and you still can't figure out which option to go with, rely on this old standby: listen to your gut. Give yourself 30 seconds to make a decision, then make it, and move on.
Hard decisions are a part of life, and you'll never be able to break away from that. But after reading this article, you should have a little more perspective on why decisions can be so difficult and steps you can take to make those decisions easier.